TALLAHASSEE — Three conservation groups have filed a second federal lawsuit alleging poor water quality in Florida, blamed for the “catastrophic mortality” of manatees.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Save the Manatee Club filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Orlando. The groups want to demand that the US Environmental Protection Agency resume discussions with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about water quality in the Indian River Lagoon, where scores of manatees died in 2021 and this year .
The lawsuit, which also alleges sea turtles are being harmed by water degradation, alleges that water quality standards set in 2009 are not “adequately followed or enforced.” The lawsuit points to “uncontrolled pollution” in the Indian River Lagoon from discharges from sewage treatment, leaking sewage treatment plants, fertilizer runoff and other sources that have killed thousands of acres of seagrass on which manatees depend for food.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, in 2009 the Florida Department of Environmental Protection established “total maximum daily exposures” for nitrogen and phosphorus. These values should preserve the natural balance of flora and fauna in the lagoon without affecting manatees and other species. The EPA approved the state levels in 2013.
“New information shows that the TMDLs do not account for contributions from historical pollution sources, underestimate contributions from sewage systems and fail to account for the effects of climate change,” the lawsuit, filed by attorneys for environmental rights organization Earthjustice, says.
“This omission harms manatees, green turtles, loggerhead turtles, smalltooth sawfish and other ESA-listed species that depend on the health of the Indian River Lagoon’s ecosystem, reducing the ability of plaintiffs’ members to view and enjoy them in.” natural habitats are being restricted on their land,” the lawsuit reads, using an acronym for the federal Endangered Species Act.
The number of manatee deaths in Florida rose to 1,101 last year after averaging 625 in the previous five years. The state had already recorded 537 deaths as of April 29 this year.
Many of the deaths in 2021 and this year were caused by manatees starving to death due to a lack of seaweed. Watercraft have caused 112 manatee deaths annually for the past six years, including 103 in 2021.
The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and US Fish and Wildlife Services have been trying to make up for lost seagrass in recent months by providing more than 200,000 pounds of lettuce to starving manatees.
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The unprecedented feeding program ran from Dec. 14 to March 31, primarily around Florida Power & Light’s Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center, where manatees congregate in winter in search of warm water.
The lawsuit also alleges that the EPA denied an August 10, 2021 request by the Fish and Wildlife Service to resume talks on water quality as required by the Endangered Species Act.
In February, the three conservation groups filed a separate lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, DC, alleging that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Administrative Procedures Act and the Endangered Species Act.
That pending lawsuit alleged that the Federal Wildlife Agency failed to take final action on a 2008 petition to revise what was known as “critical habitat” for manatees. The lawsuit described such designations as key “to ensuring survival and effecting the recovery of endangered species like the Florida manatee.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service changed the listing of manatees from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2017.
By Jim Turner, Florida News Service